For the sake of transparency, I’m not going to write this review under any pretense of objectivity. As I’ve made abundantly (and probably obnoxiously) evident on this blog, I have major issues with Marvel and superhero movies in general, and I had a lot of expectations riding on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the second feature film centered on the star-spangled super-soldier. In a far-fetched way, I was in a similar position to the resurrected Steve Rogers: disillusioned and clinging to some delicate shred of hope that the future just might be brighter than the present gives us reason to believe. This movie would either restore my faith in Hollywood blockbusters or completely ruin my desire to ever pay for another superhero blockbuster.
At first, it didn’t look promising. I could actually feel my heart sinking as Captain America and his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, including the enigmatic ex-Soviet spy Black Widow, boarded a ship to rescue hostages from Algerian pirates for an extended action sequence with no immediate purpose in terms of the overarching narrative. It turned out that the scene wasn’t superfluous, but its function only became apparent much later in the movie; as an opening set-piece, it was less than enthralling, plunging viewers into a situation without allowing them to get thoroughly (re)acquainted with the characters beforehand or informing them of the stakes involved, of why they should care. Not helping was the awkward humor, which lacked the sardonic zip we’ve come to expect from even the more subpar entries in the Avengers mega-franchise.
Just as I started to resign myself to yet another should’ve-been-better Marvel offering, something suddenly clicked. I can’t pinpoint the precise moment my mood shifted from disappointed to thrilled, but it must have been sometime around when Robert Redford entered the picture, sporting a stark gray suit and old-fashioned spectacles as menacing S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce. It’s widely agreed that villains are something of a weak point for Marvel, yet even as an outspoken critic of the studio, I think that shortcoming might be overstated. After all, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is by far the closest any other superhero antagonist has come to matching the intoxicating, compulsively watchable allure of Heath Ledger’s Joker, and even lesser baddies such as Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian have been elevated by forceful performances. Pierce belongs closer to the latter group. His motives and background are rather hazy, his diabolical scheme not quite holding up to close scrutiny, yet thanks to Redford, it hardly matters. With his weathered face and steely gaze, the veteran performer brings a welcome gravitas to the largely fanciful proceedings, unexpectedly resisting the impulse to chew scenery in favor of a restrained, almost world-weary iciness.